BRUSSELS — The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles, visited Ukrainian troops in the contested Donbas region last Wednesday, staring through a fence at the positions of Russian-backed separatists.
“We are no longer in the Yalta times,” he said, when the great powers met in 1945 to divvy up postwar Europe. “The European Union is the most reliable partner of Ukraine,” he insisted, and it “cannot be a spectator” while the United States, NATO and Russia discuss European security.
To some, Mr. Borrell’s visit was a sign of Europe’s new interest in strategic autonomy and its desire to be a significant player in its own defense. To others, his visit was risky posturing and a demand for attention that only displayed the hollowness of the European Union’s actual weight in a world of hard power.
The inescapable fact is that when the United States and Russia sit down in Geneva on Monday to discuss Ukraine and European security, Europeans will not be there. And when NATO sits down with Russia on Wednesday, the European Union as an institution will not be there — although 21 states are members of both groupings.
Even as leading nations of the European Union, like France and Germany, have pursued their own talks with Moscow and are integral members of NATO, it is embarrassingly obvious that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia regards both NATO and the European Union as subservient to American desires and decisions.
That rankles the Europeans to no end in “a very tricky moment in international affairs in Europe, unprecedented since the end of the Cold War,” said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst. “It’s our security, but we’re not there.”
Part of the annoyance is “the traditional European conundrum that too much American leadership is unpleasant and too little is also unpleasant,” he said. “But the less reassuring part is that Europeans are wondering about the consistency” of President Biden after the Afghanistan failure and his desire to turn strategic attention to China. And they worry that Mr. Biden will be badly weakened after November’s midterm elections and that Donald J. Trump may retake the presidency in 2024.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has vowed repeatedly that no decisions will be made about Europe without the Europeans, and no decisions about Ukraine without the Ukrainians — who are also largely absent from the talks. Washington has worked to ensure that Mr. Borrell and other non-NATO European leaders are regularly briefed.
But there is always a tension between the global vision of the United States, with China as the central challenge, and that of the Europeans, who have Russia as their central security challenge, said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
President Emmanuel Macron of France has been pushing Europe to do more for its own defense, especially with Mr. Trump having disparaged NATO and with Mr. Biden looking toward the Indo-Pacific. But the Europeans remain divided over how to deal with Russia, their troublesome neighbor and source of much of their gas and oil.
Central and Eastern European members trust only Washington and NATO to defend them and deter Russia, not Paris or Berlin or Brussels. And the serious economic sanctions threatened if Russia moves farther into Ukraine will hurt the European economy far more than the American, making further sanctions on Russian energy exports highly unlikely.
“In Washington there is a lot of frustration that the Europeans are not doing much themselves while complaining about what the U.S. is doing,” Mr. Leonard said. “Biden wants to focus on 21st-century challenges and China, and needs the Europeans to step up or shut up.”
Understand Russia’s Relationship With the West
The tension between the regions is growing and Russian President Vladimir Putin is increasingly willing to take geopolitical risks and assert his demands.
A senior French diplomat admitted as much this past week. “Obviously, there are very different sensitivities when it comes to Russia within the E.U. and on the European continent,” he said.
But there is “a new European assertiveness and willingness to take into account” that the world and region are “more dangerous and volatile,” he said, adding, “We need to take care of ourselves.” Still, producing real strategic weight in support of these ambitions is a long way off.
Individual European countries have their own militaries and foreign policies, and they have been reluctant to hand over much responsibility, authority or funding to Mr. Borrell and Brussels. Some see Mr. Borrell as trying to be relevant in a way that member states have not mandated.
For example, he recently sent a letter to E.U. foreign ministers insisting that “we must be at the table” in the U.S.-Russia talks and that “our main goal should be to ensure E.U. involvement in the process.” He further suggested that the 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe should be the venue for future talks, not NATO.
In the letter, provided to The New York Times, he also said that he favors separate European proposals on security and has “initiated a discrete direct conversation” with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov.
The letter was not welcomed by every foreign ministry, even as Mr. Borrell promised “full coherence and coordination with NATO” in formulating European proposals “on conventional arms control and confidence and security building measures.”
But there are also new uncertainties in important European states. Mr. Macron is facing the voters in April, and his re-election is far from assured. And while the former German chancellor Angela Merkel was a respected interlocutor for Mr. Putin — with fluent Russian, long experience in power and the German economy behind her — Olaf Scholz, her successor, is more of an unknown quantity.
Mr. Scholz is a Social Democrat, a party that always favored Ostpolitik, the normalization of relations with the East, and that also pushed Nord Stream 2, the contentious (and not yet certified) natural gas pipeline that goes directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine and Poland.
Still, Mr. Scholz is in a coalition with the fiercely anti-Russian Greens, with a Green foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, and with the Free Democrats, who are also openly critical of Russia.
While urging more European defense capacity, Mr. Scholz is also a firm believer in NATO and the trans-Atlantic alliance, said Ulrich Speck, an analyst affiliated with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. So Mr. Scholz is unlikely to break with any NATO consensus that emerges.
In Germany’s new governing coalition, “there is a balance of power in the background, and that matters,” Mr. Speck said. “Scholz must deal with this reality and a European Parliament that is more and more angry with Russia, its hostility to the E.U. and its interference in domestic affairs.”
While Mr. Borrell wants the European Union at the table, the negotiations now are power-based, Mr. Speck said. “So it makes no sense right now to push Brussels into this,” he said. “It’s a fight they cannot win.”
Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to the United States, sees value in a larger negotiation with Russia, including a diplomatic role for Berlin. “Conflict prevention through deterrence and diplomacy is the tried and tested recipe,” he wrote.
But Mr. Ischinger also remembered asking “a very senior Russian official in Moscow in 1993” how Russia would alleviate the fears of eastern Europeans. The official responded, “What’s wrong with our neighbors living in fear of us?”
“Unfortunately,” Mr. Ischinger noted, “very little, if anything, has changed since.”
Valerie Hopkins contributed reporting from Moscow, and Katrin Bennhold from Berlin.